A Journey to the Heart of Russia?
Jonathan Dimbleby is known for his intelligence and political commentary. Having never been a fan of his political programs on TV, I was surprised to hear friends back in the UK discuss the success of his five-part TV series on Russia. Perhaps he comes out better on film than in print.
The epic volume that accompanies the series is somewhat of a disappointment. In Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People, we travel with Dimbleby, chapter by chapter, from Murmansk to Novgorod, Moscow to the Caspian, Astrakhan to the Urals, Ekaterinburg to the Altai Mountains, finally ending with his journey from Irkutsk to Vladivostok. He focuses on the questions of democracy, corruption, xenophobia, and the growing divide between rich and poor – all valid concerns. However, to a fan of Moscow and someone yearning to see more of this vast and varied land, I cannot hide my dissatisifaction with this author’s fairly one-dimensional depiction of the Russian people and his self-indulgent soul-searching.
Having visited Russia before, Dimbleby makes a number of comparisons and interesting observations concerning the changing face of the country. He dedicates one section to an almost sycophantic memory of Gorbachev, remembers Yeltsin as a rude and drunken imbecile, and mistrusts the intentions and growing power of then-President Putin. Though all points are interesting, they offer nothing new in the way of political analysis and are addressed in a rather self-congratulatory and pompous manner.
His style is very readable, his literary knowledge (both English and Russian) extensive, and his manipulation of the English language great. Yet he uses these talents to create a melancholy cloud over the land and its people. On leaving the “noisy, dirty, and aggressive capital,” Dimbleby observes constant ebb and flow train passengers through Moscow. He talks of Moscow as a place that “sucks” in these travelers and then “spews” them out. He describes the young as “suspicious and feral in demeanour,” and the disfi gured old as looking always to the ground: “incuriosity seems to have seized their souls and fatalism shrouds them.” Clearly he missed the young who leap from their seats to let the older generations rest on the metro and the raucous laughter of chatting babushka. Yes, on some days the gloom of a place can get to us, but in a country as diverse as Russia we should be prepared to see both ends of the spectrum.
Dimbleby has a wealth of knowledge about Russia; her social, historical and cultural history. He offers little asides such as the story of Ermak a 16th century Cossack adventurer who according to Russian folklore began the conquest of Siberia. Yet when beginning his journey to Ekaterinburg he finds it difficult to feel excited about travelling through Siberia and once more slips into morose thoughts about leaving behind his wife and new child, the death of his lover and the impending marriage of his first wife to a close family friend.
That said, this is a remarkable book, one that I imagine you can return to and read again. However, perhaps
Jonathan Dimbleby should have stuck with his TV title, Russia: A Journey with Jonathan Dimbleby, rather than suggesting he was travelling to the heart of this land and its people. It would have been more honest.
Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and Its People
by Jonathan Dimbleby. BBC Books, 2008, 576 pages.